Distilling Local Products at The Gulch

While having a cocktail in Gulch Distiller’s tasting room, you might look through the glass to the distilling room and notice the unique elk mount with one antler drooping low over its eye socket, and then you might see the dried herbs hanging a few feet away.  And then you’d realize that the large tanks and urns in there are making what you’re sipping.  This business is definitely a local and unique treasure in Helena and across the state.

Steffen Rasile recently treated AERO staff to a tour of Helena’s only micro-distillery.  Steffen and business partner Tyrrell Hibbard purchased the distillery in 2015 with a shared passion for whiskey and quality spirits.  The two Helena natives own and operate the business, fermenting, distilling, and bottling on site.  They use only Montana grown grains in their grain-based spirits, and aim to eventually source as many of their products from Montana as possible.

Steffen attended one of AERO’s Growing Food Businesses workshops in 2016 on behalf of The Gulch, and we followed up with him and Tyrrell this winter to see what they’ve put into practice from the workshop, and how AERO can help with future resources and course offerings.  They went to the workshop to learn what equipment they would need to make infrastructure improvements and, eventually, new products.  They were curious about stainless appliances and sinks, and what their options are for sourcing local products to make syrups and liquors.

What the two found was that there are very few detailed rules written down, and product acquisition and legality is on a case by case basis due to the variable cottage food law requirements.  “There are no checklists for small businesses to follow in order to purchase and use locally grown or harvested products,” Steffen said.  “Can we buy lavender or basil from a Farmers’ Market vendor to use in our syrups or drinks?”  Or would that be illegal because the farmers have an exception under the food law, but Gulch does not.  We asked the Department of Public Health and Human Services for clarification, and Nina Heinzinger of the Food & Consumer Safety department provided some information.  Nina told us: “For retail food operations, the business owner must buy his food from approved sources.  Usually locally grown produce (such as from a CSA or farmers’ market) is approved, but the operator should check with their local sanitarian to verify this. Many operations use locally grown produce on their menus, and some contract with CSAs for produce.”  She went on to explain that an example of an unapproved source would be food prepared in a home kitchen.  “The main concern is that the owner maintains a record (i.e. bill of sale, invoice) to be able to track their sources of their food,” she told us.  More guidance and documents explaining the Cottage Food laws can be found on DPHHS website.

Another piece of advice when purchasing fresh produce is to ask the grower if he or she is GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certified or if they follow the Good Agricultural Practices guidelines.  This helps demonstrate that the grower is carrying out on-farm food safety practices.  When performing updates to the Abundant Montana Directory, web designers added a “GAP certified” spot in our directory, so producers can be searchable that way!  

Steffen and Tyrrell aspire to use as many Montana products as possible, and are working on securing botanicals for products like absinthe, fernet, and aperitifs.  

Hanging in the corner of the shop are mugwort, mint, wormwood, and chamomile, which are used in the Fernet and test liqueurs and grown around Helena.  “We haven’t been able to find all the herbs and botanicals we want; somehow we need to tell farmers what to grow,” Steffen admits.  “For 40 cases of gin, we need about 60 lbs of botanicals.”

The distillery currently uses wheat from Townsend Seeds, and the Great Falls company MaltEurop (suppliers for Coors and Budweiser) reserves malt for Montana breweries and distilleries.  One of the appliances we noticed in the distillery room was a grain mill, where Steffen says they coarsely mill their own wheat and barley.  “I have a finer-grind mill at home for baking flour,” Steffen grinned.

During the process of malting and brewing, the liquid by-products left are rich in protein and fibers, and this spent grain is picked up by a Helena pig farmer.  “Otherwise I guess we would have to pour it down a drain,” he admits. This arrangement works out to be a good deal for both parties! Happy people, happy pigs.

Steffen mentioned he would appreciate AERO’s assistance in finding answers to their questions about local products and producers, and hopes we continue to build his supply of sustainable Montana items, which might help with their never ending needs for botanicals!

Gulch Distillery is mostly a local liquor provider, though they hope to expand out of Montana and onto craft distillery shelves around the west.  Right now you can find their liquors in Helena at The Windbag, On Broadway, Silver Star Steakhouse, and Miller’s Crossing.  Or head to their business location in the former Montana Distillery and Bottling Warehouse at the north end of Helena’s main, historic gulch.  They’re just downstream from the strike that turned a gulch into the mining camp that became a state capital.



In researching Steffen’s food law questions, we are reminded of the clear need for a forum to answer questions about the laws, and using local products.  AERO manages the www.mtfoodeconomy.org website, and will continue to publish these discussions on there. Visit the forum to post your own question, and we’ll help connect you to answers!

Recommended Energy Reads

Reading Resources on Electricity, Renewables, EVs and Batteries

It’s hard to keep up with developments in renewable energy, electric vehicles and batteries. These new technologies are developing rapidly, dropping in price and starting to play a significant role in our national energy policy.

Leading thinkers are increasing saying that these three technologies are starting to grow exponentially in the marketplace and will disrupt the fossil fuels market much sooner than expected. It seems like every week there is some startling news about how strongly renewables are performing.

To get you started, here are 3 recent articles:

This is just a small sampling. To read more, I’ve assembled a list of my favorite journalists and writers, websites, websites and videos, found below.

These are exciting times in the energy world, plenty of thrills and some heartbreak too.

Jim Baerg ETF Co-Chair

March, 2017

Journalists and Writers:

Dave Roberts at http://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment

Joe Romm on Climate issues and tech developments in response to climate are at https://thinkprogress.org/tagged/climate

John Farrell at ILSR on democratizing energy: https://ilsr.org/initiatives/energy/?contenttype=article-archive&initiative=energy&archive=1

Richard Heinberg at http://www.postcarbon.org/


Websites covering Energy and Technology:

http://www.renewableenergyworld.com/index.html   News, Tech developments and Business. I get a weekly feed of news items.






Rocky Mountain Institute

http://solartoday.org/  The American Solar Energy Society; You can subscribe to Solar@Work, their twice monthly bulletin

http://www.awea.org/   American Wind Energy Assn. There is a blog and news.



Tony Sheba on “The Solar Disruption”

TED: A 40 Year Plan for Energy

Bloomberg: The Peak Oil Myth and the Rise of the Electric Car



A Retrospective Analysis of the Benefits and Impacts of U.S. Renewable Portfolio Standards January 2016 NREL

SHINING REWARDS The Value of Rooftop Solar Power for Consumers and Society 2016 Edition, Environment America Research & Policy Center


Bloomberg: Here’s How Electric Cars Will Cause the Next Oil Crisis

Off-Grid Solar Power vs Grid-Connected Solar Power In The 21st Century

Expect the Unexpected: The Disruptive Power of Low-carbon Technology


Polling: How popular is RE?

Post Election National Clean Energy Survey

Ohio GOP voters support green energy, efficiency programs and customer choice

Public opinion on renewables and other energy sources

Growing Food (and a Business!) in the Flathead

Last spring, Tawnya Rourke Kelly attended AERO’s Growing Food Businesses workshop that was held in the Flathead.

Tawnya GardeningTawnya, a practicing permaculturist, currently owns and runs, “HeartStead Home & Garden LLC,” a landscape business that helps people in the Flathead design and maintain gardens with an eye towards attracting pollinators and using native and food-bearing plants.

She attended the workshop with the mindset that someday her small farm will generate enough income to scale down her landscaping business and allow her to focus on growing food to feed her community.

Like many workshop attendees struggling with the logistics and the language of the new laws, Tawnya found the seminar valuable in helping her gain a clear understanding of the breakdown of what small producers can or can’t legally sell in Montana.  What stuck out to her was that the current cottage food law appears to not allow her to have an income that matches her landscaping business.  Based on income modeling and her calculations, it would take making the leap to wholesale to bring in profits, Tawnya said, and as a one-woman enterprise, she simply can’t make that work.

Tawnya has a passion for food and feeding people, and it is obvious in the many activities and events she is involved with.  She is a co-organizer of the wildly popular Free the Seeds event, and a board member of Farmhands-Nourish the Flathead.  She is also coordinating the upcoming Inland Northwest Permaculture Convergence which will take place in Hot Springs this Labor Day.  Tawnya has no trouble talking about growing things, and the networking at AERO’s workshops, events, and other garden/farm-centered gatherings is very valuable, she says.

hoophouseTawnya’s challenge, which is not an uncommon one, is getting locals and farmers interested and involved in classes or workshops. “Farmers are super busy for not a ton of income, have families, and don’t want to overextend themselves,” she told us.  Making classes appealing from a time-management and profit-increase level will be the most effective, in her opinion.  

That way, farmers will see the benefit of making time to attend.kitchen table veggies

Tawnya, along with Purple Frog Gardens owner Pam Gerwe and staff at Farmhands, were part of the team in the Kalispell area that asked AERO to bring the workshop to the Flathead.  When workshops were planned in Bozeman, Billings, Great, Falls, and Arlee, Tawnya and other movers and shakers helped bring the workshop to more folks. Indeed, many attendees have responded that the various location options throughout Montana made attending feasible.  Often, trainings and workshops for beginning farmers and ranchers are based in one part of the state, and the travel can be prohibitive.  Like others, Tawnya is hoping for a follow-up class with further clarifications for some of the cottage food laws, as well as ways to grow markets and buyers so that small-scale production can be feasible for business-women and producers like her.

We have great news for Tawnya and everyone; just this month AERO received $50,000 funding from the Western Extension Risk Management Education Center to hold another workshop series to help Montanans better understand the state’s updated food policies and grow their farm and food businesses.*

For Tawnya, making her passion for growing food and feeding people a financially feasible option is a great priority. We wish her the best of luck in this admirable endeavor!

*We will hold the next workshop series in the fall/winter of 2017.   Last spring, over 100 folks attended the workshop series.  Feedback from that first round emphasized the value of examining concrete examples of the nitty gritty aspects of the laws, as well as connecting folks with other brainstormers, entrepreneurs and local health officials.  AERO looks forward to making more of those connections, and hopes you’ll help us shape those workshops by answering a few short questions, here.

Call for Work Party Proposals!

Dear Friends of AERO and Food and Ag Task Force Members,

Do you have a food, farm, or agricultural project you want to see completed while educating and building community? Let us help!

Screen Shot 2017-02-16 at 1.09.29 PM.png

Working together on the straw bale house build!

Last summer, AERO had the unique opportunity to help some of our members make a long-standing dream a reality. In July, we gathered together in Floweree, Montana, for a  weekend of learning and building to raise a strawbale house for AERO members Elsie and Russ. We gathered again this fall in Big Sandy on Bob Quinn’s farm to harvest Dave Christensen’s beautiful painted mountain corn and learn about its unique properties and seed history. At both of these events, we loved the chance to get our hands a little dirty, learn new skills, eat and camp together, and do something tangible for our members and our community.

This spring, the Food and Agriculture Task Force plans to gather for an in-person meeting that combines the discussion and goal setting of the Task Force with a work-party that completes or contributes to a project in need of helping hands. If you or someone you know have such a project, send us a quick proposal, and we’ll consider your site.

Here’s what we’re looking for:

1) A farming, food, or agriculture based project that can provide work for and host up to 40 volunteers for a one to two day period (including sites for tents and camping).

2) A host site that can provide the tools, materials, and basic essential training for volunteers. (AERO cannot provide funds for materials, but will help feed and transport volunteers.)

3) Appropriate work for a variety of skill levels.  

4) A site with a project date that falls between April 20 and June 30.

Examples might include: A barn-raising or other basic construction; planting or harvesting; field-clearing or soil preparation; farm site/structure maintenance – or surprise us!

If you are interested, please write to aero@aeromt.org with “WORK PARTY” as your subject line and a short description of your proposed project, your location, an outline of what’s needed, and your capacity to host volunteers.

Proposals are due by March 25. The Task Force Chairs, Erin Janoso and Caroline Stephens, with staff support, will select a project by March 31st.

We look forward to hearing from you!

~ Your AERO Team


Work party harvesting Painted Mountain corn in Big Sandy with Dave Christensen



Troy Farmers’ Market: Increasing Food Access in the Yaak

Five years ago, Shawna Kelsey thought she was working to increase access to healthy food in rural Montana by starting a Farmers’ Market in Troy, in the northwest corner of Montana.  Working for the Yaak Valley Forest Council, Shawna collaborated with a core group of vendors and volunteers, and that first season there were 2 vendors, and 25-50 patrons mingled in and out of the market.  

Relaxing on the lush lawn at the Market

Fast forward to 2016, where the market averaged 12 vendors and the event has become a community hub on Friday afternoons, bringing over 200 customers each week.  Shawna says kids come by in the afternoons, and locals and quite a few seasonal tourists visit with the vendors–and each other–while browsing the fruits, vegetables, and crafts for sale.  

We were excited to meet Shawna at one of AERO’s Growing Food Businesses: Opportunities Under Montana’s New Food Laws workshops held in last spring, and spoke with her recently to hear about the 2016 Farmers’ Market season and her successes and challenges with the new food policies.

The workshop helped Shawna become the go-to resource for vendors or consumers with questions about selling products, she says, instead of only having the county environmental health specialist as a source of information.  “People get excited about selling things, and it doesn’t always make sense why they can or can’t do it,” Shawna told us, “items like Kombucha and Kimchi and salsa are raising lots of questions.”  

A key piece of information Shawna gained from the workshop was that products that weren’t allowed in the past– such as spices and baking mixes — are now allowed under the new Cottage Food law.  She came up with a list of new opportunities and items for vendors to consider selling.  

Thanks to AERO’s Expo, workshops, and sustainable community, it has been easy for Shawna to network and gain support with other farmers markets, she says.  The northwestern part of Montana is considered a food desert, and folks like Shawna are working hard to encourage the culture of local foods and sustainable agriculture in the area.

Luckily, even in rural areas, there are always those that surprise and encourage us, such as the Troy market vendor who lives in town and grows a market garden on ⅛ acre.  Shawna says vendors are “hungry for knowledge” and that her vendor training series are well attended, encouraging new vendors to try their hand at selling at the Farmers’ Market.

The Troy Farmers’ Market is reducing food miles by leaps and bounds, and encouraging the community to first stop and shop from the neighborhood before heading to the big stores.  One significant success was receiving a Federal Grant in 2016 to purchase a large cider press, which became a huge attraction during apple harvest time.  Shawna estimates that in 4 hours over 75 gallons of cider were made with the press!   


The new cider press purchased with a federal grant

A quick browse of their very beautiful and informative facebook page can give you a peek into what this amazing group has accomplished.  We’re happy to highlight the Troy Farmers’ Market, which is located at the lowest elevation in the state!  It’s worth a drive to visit the market, which occurs on Fridays afternoons from 3:30 06:30 pm, June – September on the lawn of the Troy Museum.

Advocating for Clean Energy in the 2017 Legislative Session

AERO Energy Task Force Chair Jim Baerg attended legislative session meetings this week to testify on multiple bills affecting net metering and clean energy in Montana. Check out Jim’s write up below. Links are included to other great organizations and AERO partners working towards clean energy initiatives during the session and throughout the year.
From Jim Baerg:
I went to Helena Monday, January 9, with a carload of Northern Plains Resource Council (NPRC) people, including Ben Reed, to testify on HB52 and HB34.  I also visited with Brian Fadie, who is Montana Environmental Information Center‘s (MEIC) lobbyist, Jeff Fox, of Renewable NorthWest, Adam Haight, NPRC’s lobbyist, and Andrew Valainis, the new ED at Montana Renewable Energy Association (MREA).
HB52 would grandfather in current rates for existing net metering customers. HB34 would allow government buildings in MT to install up to 250 kW systems, which is an increase over the current 50kW.
These two bills came out of the Interrum ETIC Committee which had been meeting over the last two years to sort out the conflict between the utilities and the Renewable Energy people over Net Metering.  The large issues between these two parties weren’t resolved, but they were able to put together these two bills.
So it was a pleasant surprise that NorthWestern Energy’s only opposition was to HB34.  They were joined by MDU. If HB34 is passed, there is good potential for a lot of big systems to be installed around the state, losing a lot of revenue for the utilities. Governments are building owners and historically have been pretty supportive of renewables.
Everyone else in the room, and the room was packed, was in favor of both bills. The testimony was substantial and informed, so I’m optimistic.
The underlying fight is over NWE’s defining of the problem with Net Metering.  They say that they pay retail rates for solar electricity, when they should be paying wholesale.  This amounts to a subsidy of rich customers by less well off customers.  It’s a very simple, politically effective argument. The real issue for them is that they are resisting competition, and lost revenues if others can generate electricity.  This issue has been studied in detail around the country in the last few years.  I presented a chart showing results of all 16 studies, which on average calculate that rooftop solar provides 16.35 cents per kWh of benefits to the system, to society and to the environment.
Republican Represenative Dan Zolnikov from Billings, who is the chair, sponsored both bills and supported them pretty vigorously. He seems to have a libertarian, free market perspective and repeatedly brought up the monopolistic status of the utilities. I was encouraged by his independence, arguments and persuasiveness.
Tuesday, SB1 and SB7 are up for consideration by the House Energy, Technology and Federal Relations Committee. SB1 mandates advanced dual meters with communication capabilities to the utilities on PV systems and potential utility control of output.  SB7 prohibits renewable systems from subsidizing non-renewable customers.  All this depends on the definition of the costs and benefits of renewables to the the system. There was some talk, including by Zolnikov of having the PSC resolve this issue by doing a study which would kick the can down the road..
I asked Adam Haight, NPRC’s lobbyist, if they needed support today on these two bills.  He said that the enviro lobbyists would be there to testify and that there will be more appropriate times in the process to get additional testimony.
Other news:  NPRC is pushing PACE financing for energy conservation and renewables. This is a terrific solution to the cost barrier  and has been enacted in over 30 states.  Adam said that the Governor is strongly supportive, but wants to trade away the renewable funding side of the bill and keep conservation funding.  Ben Reed got pretty upset over that and pushed on Adam pretty hard.  Here’s some info on PACE.
Personally, I think that getting the PACE enabling legislation passed is a very high priority.  Please join me in strongly supporting this bill.
One of the points I made yesterday is that renewable energy, as a technology, has reached inevitable proportions and momentum world wide. There is a transition to be made and we need to work together, all parties, in search of the best solutions.  Just meeting the needs of a monopoly and out of state owners is not sufficient nor wise.
Please join AERO over the next several months to support our efforts promoting sane energy policy.  It’s pretty easy, interesting, and what citizens are meant to do in a democracy.
Best wishes in 2017

Abundant Montana Directory is Live! Password protected listings, new categories, and easy to use!

While you are cozy in your pajamas this winter, you can update your farm or business information in the greatest {ALWAYS FREE} marketing tool for local producers in Montana, the ABUNDANT MONTANA directory!

Montana producers, businesses and Farmers’ Market managers let AERO know that they wanted their own way to to keep their Abundant listings up-to-date and current.  They asked for it, they got it!  Abundant’s new password-protected user form, along with other recent updates, allow you to manage your own listing, and help tourists, consumers, and visitors easily find information as to where and what local products are available in Montana.  The upgrades are funded through  a grant from the USDA’s Farmers’ Market Promotional Program.

Tyler with carrots

Carrots (and kids) grow great in Montana! (photo from J Heinert)

AERO has been working with web developers Axiom and Gage Cartographics to implemenupdates.  We have created a tutorial and are planning weekly webinars to help users.  

Exciting Changes for Users and Listing Owners

New and existing Abundant listing owners will be able to add, update and expand their information and immediately have it published in the directory.  Changes include:  an expanded product listmore in-depth CSA information, the ability to upload numerous pictures and videos, and safety checks to ensure information is correctly entered.  

For producers wanting to know if they are getting traffic to their listings, an analytic tracker has been incorporated also, which will show how many “views” your listing has received!

A new calendar system allows listing owners to add upcoming events hosted by your farm or business!  For example, a beginning beekeeper can now submit their basic information, and update it as their business and products evolve.  And they can put an open house onto the events calendar for all to see!

We realized new categories needed to be added to keep up with the dynamic menu of food and agriculture opportunities Montana has to offer, so now included are new category descriptors  such as predator-friendly, pickled products, and CSA information.  Agritourism is becoming a popular adventure (and income generator!), so we have expanded that information as well.  


Map of all listings in Abundant directory

More updates and opportunities will be coming to the Abundant Montana Online Directory soon. Keep checking back at  http://aeromt.org/abundant/

The goal of these database updates is to help producers take charge of their own listing; we’d love to get your feedback and thoughts! Give us a call in the office or email Jackie at jheinert@aeromt.org.